The Weekly Round-Up #140 With Punk Rock Jesus, American Vampire, Conan, Godzilla & More

Best Comic of the Week:

Punk Rock Jesus #2

by Sean Murphy

I enjoyed the last issue of Punk Rock Jesus, but I feel like Sean Murphy really brought his A-game to this issue.  There is so much to like about this series.  In it, Murphy has put together a reality show, called J2, around the idea that Jesus Christ has been cloned, and has been born to an 18-year old virgin girl who was carefully selected (and then surgically altered to reflect the correct demographics.

This issue takes place six months into the project.  Young Chris has become a media star, despite the fact that he has no contact with anyone other than his mother, his doctor, and the security personnel that protect the J2 island compound from incursions by the NAC – the New American Christians, who are opposed to the show and all it represents.  When the issue opens, Thomas McKael, the director of security and former IRA soldier, attacks them as they blockade the island.

From there, we learn that Gwen, Chris’s mother, is having a hard time dealing with her celebrity, basic incarceration, and postpartum depression.  She’s begun drinking, and is unable to understand why her family hasn’t visited.  Geneticist Dr. Epstein (don’t remember her first name) is worried about her, and announces her own pregnancy.  Eventually, McKael takes Gwen out for a spin, to try to cheer her up, although that doesn’t go so well.

There’s a lot happening in this comic.  Murphy uses a Larry King type character to show us how the media is responding to Chris, and his first two miracles, and it’s increasingly clear to everyone that the people behind J2 care nothing about anything other than profit.  No mention is made about the surprise ending of the last issue, although I’m sure that has something to do with Epstein’s announcement.

Murphy’s art is great, and while I still suspect that the book’s black and white presentation was a cost-cutting move on DC’s part, I like it a lot, and don’t even mind the cheaper paper stock used.  This is well worth picking up.

Other Notable Comics:

American Vampire: Lord of Nightmares #3

Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Dustin Nguyen

We all knew that eventually Scott Snyder would have no choice but to get around to dealing with Dracula, and I like the way it’s being handled.  The big D is the name commonly given to the ‘Prime Carpathian’, or the sire of an entire species of vampires, much like Skinner Sweet is to the American Vampire.  Dracula has been taken by the Soviets, and fed a little blood, which means he has the ability to influence any vampires in his line, and at times, even control humans.  This does not work out well for the Soviets.

At the same time, Dracula tries to use Gus, Cash McCogan’s son, to kill Agent Hobbes, although unsuccessfully.  This leads Hobbes and Felicia Book to travel to Germany, to seek out The Firsts, a group of vampires from older lines who have been hiding throughout Europe.

Even though we are half-way into the series, Snyder is still setting up a lot, as the conflict between the Firsts and the Carpathians is going to be the central focus of the book from this point on.  Book is a great character though, and the story flows really well.

Dustin Nguyen has been killing it on this book.  During an extended conversation between Hobbes and Book, Nguyen borrows a tool from Eduardo Risso’s bag of tricks, and shows us a scene involving animals in the snow, which perfectly encapsulates the tone and feel of this series.  It’s good stuff.

Blue Estate #12

Written by Viktor Kalvachev, Kosta Yanev, and Andrew Osborne
Art by Viktor Kalvachev, Toby Cypress, Nathan Fox, and Peter Nguyen

Blue Estate has been a truly unique comic experience, and with this issue, Viktor Kalvachev brings his experimental approach to a very satisfying conclusion.

There is no easy way to summarize or encapsulate all that has led up to this issue, except to say that through a long string of coincidences, bumbles, and fate, a large group of people have, when this book opens, converged on a termite-infested house, and, with few exceptions, are all looking to kill one another.  There are Russian and Italian mobsters, idiot sons, police, hitmen, private eyes, and Hollywood starlets all caught up in the mix.

This issue is full of the bizarre and violent deaths, and the strange coincidences (ie., a gangster escapes bullets and police, only to run into a football player he had his men brutalize months earlier) that have made this book such an entertaining read.  It also wraps up every storyline I can remember, and dangles the secret of the beluga, without explaining just what that mythical sex act really is.

What has made this comic so unique is the rotating roster of artists who have contributed different pages or panels.  Kalvachev has brought together some of the most interesting artists in the business, and has melded their different styles in such a way as to give the book a consistent look and feel, even when the styles used usually would clash.

I highly recommend picking this series up in trade.  I can’t wait for the second season to begin…

Conan the Barbarian #7

Written by Brian Wood
Art by Becky Cloonan

Two Becky Cloonan comics in the same week?  It’s like the comic book gods knew it was my birthday this week or something…

This issue begins a new arc on Conan – Border Fury – which has everyone’s favourite barbarian return home to Cimmeria, because he has heard rumours that someone is going around killing his countrymen and putting the credit for it in his name.  Of course, being Conan, he’s there to track down and kill whoever this person is.

What makes this issue interesting is that Conan has brought Belit with him.  While in the south seas, and while on her boat, Belit is feared and revered in equal measures, but here in Cimmeria, she is just a foreign girl, ill-suited for the environment.  Wood and Cloonan do a terrific job of conveying the discomfort and rage Belit feels, and also do well at showing the conflict within Conan between his loyalty to his people and his need to protect his lover.

This arc feels much like Wood’s Northlanders to me, but that would be because I’m not all that familiar with Conan, and so immediately read the cold and harsh landscape as being somewhere Vikings would have lived.  As always, this is a very entertaining and beautiful comic.

Godzilla: The Half-Century War #1

by James Stokoe

Much like Conan before Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan came along, Godzilla is not a character or comics property I have any interest in.  Why then am I buying this latest IDW mini-series with such a sense of excitement?  James Stokoe.

Stokoe first caught my eye with his Wonton Soup English-language manga series at Oni, but it is his Orc Stain that really exposed the depth of his comics genius.  That series, which chronicles the adventures of a nameless one-eyed Orc who may have a role in fulfilling some great prophecy, has been on a hiatus for a while, and so I’m happy to get my fix of Stokoe with this book.

Stokoe excels at pages filled with finely detailed mayhem.  His work is like a cross between Geof Darrow and Brandon Graham, and it is never boring.  This series is about a Japanese soldier, Lieutenant Ota Murakami, who first encounters Godzilla in 1954, when the monster first attacks Tokyo.  Murakami and his friend are able to protect a large number of evacuating civilians by distracting the monster, and later they are offered a job which, we are told, leads to Murakami spending half a century dealing with the giant radioactive lizard.

Story and character are secondary to visuals here, and Stokoe does not disappoint.  There are some excellent scenes of Tokyo being devastated, and the book is fun, inventive read.  I look forward to the next issue (even though I’d rather be reading Orc Stain).

The Massive #3

Written by Brian Wood
Art by Kristian Donaldson

I love The Massive.  I can understand why some on-line reviewers have chosen to complain about how exposition-heavy this first arc has been, but I think it’s understandable when you consider the length to which Brian Wood has altered our current world.

Basically, a string of natural disasters and environmental catastrophes have created great upheaval throughout the world, upending established social orders.  The series follows a small group of ecological activists (some would say terrorists) as they search for the other ship that makes up their fleet, for their friends aboard it, and for a way to continue their mission of environmental protection and conservation in the face of global calamity.  Without the frequent examples and explanations that Wood has provided over these first three issues, the magnitude of change would not be properly understood.

This issue, which finishes off the first arc, is a little anti-climactic compared to the other two, but it feels necessary in that it helps establish just how the crew of The Kapital has been able to resupply and keep running where so many other ships have fallen apart.  It also provides some insight into just how Callum Israel, leader of the Ninth Wave, is seen by his crew.

Wood excels at this type of book.  Kristian Donaldson’s art is crisp and clear, and the book is intelligent and exciting to read.  I hope this is getting enough attention in comic stores, and that it gets a nice long run.

Wasteland #39

Written by Antony Johnston
Art by Sandy Jarrell

A new issue of Wasteland is always a small cause for celebration, but I especially like the one-off issues that Johnston always writes between longer story arcs.  This issue takes us further back than we’ve ever been in this series, with a story set just ten years after the ‘Big Wet’, the disaster that changed the entire world.

This story is centred on Michael, Marcus, and Mary, as a trio of children (they look to be about twelve to fourteen years old) as they travel through the wasteland the world has become.  These names are familiar to regular readers of the book.  Michael is the ruinrunner who is the series’s main character.  Marcus becomes the ruler of Newbegin, a walled city that is probably the pinnacle of human civilization in this world, but he runs it as a dictator.  Mary is his consort, who only recently arrived in the city, having led an army of Sand-Eaters in an attack before switching sides.

This issue shows the three kids as allies, if not quite friends.  There is a rivalry between Marcus and Michael, although Michael doesn’t particularly care about it.  It’s clear that Marcus is in love with Mary, but she is more interested in Michael.  When a group of scavengers find them, and decide that they would like to take the girl, things get interesting, especially when Marcus has a vision of Michael killing Mary.

Wasteland has had a number of artists since Christopher Mitten made his departure (there is yet another artist coming on board for the next arc).  I’ve never heard of Sandy Jarrell before, but I like his work here.  It fits nicely with the look Mitten established for the book – scratchy and as sparse as the landscape, although still capable of telling a clear story.  I like Jarrell’s work much more than I did Justin Greenwood’s, and I hope we see him on this book again.

Quick Takes:

Archer & Armstrong #1 – I haven’t looked to see how the Internet is reacting to this relaunch of the Valiant classic, but I can imagine that a certain right-wing segment of the American population might not like the comic much.  In Fred Van Lente’s new series, Archer is the son of a preacher and congresswoman, who has been trained since birth in a variety of martial arts, to track down and kill an evil figure, who apparently has possession of a machine that made him immortal some 10 000 years ago, killing everyone on Earth in the process (the machine looks a lot like the one Einstein has in Manhattan Projects).  Of course, poor Armstrong has been lied to, as he is attacked by his parents’ allies just when he captures the enemy (a bouncer who likes to quote Carl Sandburg) because, “Greed is godly.”  This has a lot of potential – there’s the stranger in a strange land aspect to Archer’s story (he’s only lived in his family’s religious theme park), and the send-up of the 1%.  Clayton Henry is no Barry Windsor-Smith, but he does a fine job on art.  I may now be adding another Valiant book to my pull-file list.

Batman #12 – This was on track to being my favourite mainstream comic of the year, and then things get a little weird at the end.  The first twenty pages of this comic are written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Becky Cloonan (Becky Cloonan on Batman!!!!), and they are fantastic.  The story features Harper Row, a young woman who works on Gotham’s electrical system and tries to protect her younger brother from homophobes.  She’s living in one of the neighbourhoods that Bruce Wayne is working to revitalize, and we get a pretty good look at her life and its challenges.  One night, Batman rescues her and her brother from his tormentors, and Harper decides to start helping him in his mission, working on the boxes he’s attached to the city’s electrical grid.  This part of the comic is wonderful, but suddenly we hit the last eight pages, and Snyder is joined by James Tynion IV (with no real noticeable change in the story, although it becomes more conventional), and Cloonan is replaced by Andy Clarke, who makes everything look like a normal, everyday super hero comic.  I have nothing against Clarke’s art (and really liked his work on REBELS), but he is not the person to pair with Cloonan.  Actually, she should have been allowed to draw the whole comic, even if that made it late.  The maniacal insistence of DC’s editorial to sacrifice good art for timeliness has bothered me (assuming that’s what this is, because the alternative is complete editorial myopia) before, but here it’s just wrong.  I’ve seen it argued that Clarke came on for those pages because they showed Batman fighting a bad guy, and were not so exclusively Harper’s, but were that the case, Cloonan would have come back to finish the book.  Still, I did enjoy this comic a great deal, and only wish that this book could have art this good on a regular basis.  Greg Capullo has grown on me (and as an artist) since taking on this title, but he (and the rest of DC’s regular artists) are nowhere near being in Cloonan’s league.  I would love to see her return to this series, at least semi-regularly.

Batman and Robin #12 – Reading this right after reading Snyder and Cloonan’s book is probably not fair, but I think I’d be unimpressed even if I read this after reading Jeph Loeb’s Wolverine.  This title works best when focusing on Damian Wayne, and his relationship with his father.  The last couple issues have had Damian feeling the need to prove himself compared to the past Robins, and that’s worked well, but the plot about this Terminus dude who wants to fight Batman is not good at all.  This issue has Bruce put on some Iron Batman armor, and fly off to Bucky Barnes a missile full of neurotoxin or something, like this is some other comic.  Batman doesn’t work when it’s about selling new action figure variants.  Get back to Bruce and Damian, and this title is a winner.  More issues like this, and it’s going to be dropped.

Creator-Owned Heroes #3 – I’m not sure what to do with this title.  I like the Trigger Girl 6 story (by Palmiotti, Gray, and Noto) even though it gets a little stiff in this issue (check the scene where the dudes on the street are talking to the Trigger Girl – it’s a study in awkward dialogue).  I was enjoying American Muscle (by Niles and Mellon), but this month’s instalment is not good – mutants force one of the main characters to wear a dress and parade around in a stockade, yet there is no explanation for that or why the sheriff keeps shooting people – it’s like Quentin Tarantino and Roberto Rodriguez at their worst.  In terms of the ‘magazine’ content which is supposed to be setting this title apart from others, while it remains squarely in the realm of fanboy puff interviews (with Mark Waid) or self-serving, zineish columns.  The only interesting part had Phil Noto discussing painting.  Palmiotti and crew should read the back of any of Ed Brubaker’s creator-owned books to get a better idea of how that stuff should be done.

Dancer #4 – This Nathan Edmondson and Nic Klein thriller series is moving at a good pace, as the main character continues to try to find his younger clone in Austria.  This feels very much like an action movie, and Klein continues to play it much safer than he usually does (although I like the shape the man’s blood made in the snow).  Not bad at all, but also not exactly memorable.

Demon Knights #12 – The team fight Morgaine Le Fey, because there is a rule in comics that states that if you have characters from, or your story is set in, Arthurian times, Morgaine must make an appearance within a year.  It’s a good enough issue, but I prefer this book when it is more character-driven.

Fairest #6 – This spin-off of Fables has been better than the mothership title for the last few months, but I’ve reached the end of my enjoyment of Bill Willingham’s work with these characters.  I know that both titles continue to be popular with readers, but I feel like they are just going over the same old stuff again and again, and I’ve lost interest.  I may jump back onto this book from time to time, as it is going to have rotating creative teams, and I can see a day where it will have a line-up that is not to be missed.  But then, the way Vertigo is losing talent lately, that may not ever be the case…

Fantastic Four #609 – Do you remember the last season of Babylon 5, when JMS just kept explaining and revisiting minor things from earlier episodes?  It was a long good-bye, lasting half the season, and it bored the pants off me.  Why do I bring this up here?  Because it’s the closest thing I can compare Fantastic Four and FF to, now that Hickman has finished his big story, and yet is still writing the comic.  In this issue, he returns to the Nu-World characters that Mark Millar introduced to the book, including Banner Jr., the old Hulk dude.  At least he deals with them, but who really cares now?  The art is by Ryan Stegman, who I think has been reading a few too many old Art Adams comics, but mixes Adams’s large eyes with Ron Garney’s pacing.  There are only two or three panels on most pages, which works for a comic with next to no story.  I never thought I’d look forward to Hickman leaving this title, but it’s time to move on.

Frankenstein Agent of SHADE #12 – I thought that Matt Kindt coming on to this book would result in stories that were a little quieter and focused on the craft of whatever it is that SHADE does, but he’s gone in the opposite direction, amping up the comic book craziness of this series, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.  Frank kills the Leviathan that is a living prison for retired SHADE agents, and it goes to its graveyard, which is an underwater forest given atmosphere by the mystical bone energy of other Leviathans (seriously), gets a free verse poetry spell put on him that doesn’t work, and then causes some mayhem.  This kind of thing worked when Grant Morrison was doing it in Doom Patrol, but now it feels overdone and under-considered.  We are one year into this book, and I have yet to care about any of these characters.  Of course, now there is some sort of tenuous connection to the Rot stories in Swamp Thing and Animal Man, but I suspect that’s just a last-ditch attempt to gain some crossover sales.  I just put in my pre-orders for October, but I think that will be the last issue of this book that I get.

Spider-Men #4 – Almost this entire issue consists of the 616 Peter Parker sitting around and talking to Ultimate Aunt May, Gwen Stacey, and Miles Morales, and I have to say that it is excellent throughout.  I never read any Ultimate Spider-Man comics until Miles came along, so I know as much as Peter about what’s happened there (Kitty Pryde?), but in terms of straight-up character writing (and drawing), this was an excellent issue.  There is a huge problem with continuity though, as May and Gwen know Miles already, but we know that didn’t happen until after Nick Fury went into hiding, and yet here he is front and centre.  Leaving that aside, this is an emotionally poignant and fun book, with great art.

Suicide Squad #12 I suppose this issue is a slight improvement over the last, but I’m seriously done with this book.  We meet Regulus, the leader of Basilisk, and learn that had DC stuck with Kobra, things would have been cooler.  We learn who the ‘traitor’ is, and of course it doesn’t match with how the character has been portrayed all along (and of course, it’s one of only three characters I like in this book).  I think some other stuff happens – I know that Captain Boomerang showed up to accuse Deadshot of stinking ‘like a sheila’, which I think is either the most misogynistic or just perplexing thing I’ve read in a comic in a while.  Partway through reading this, I realized that it’s like reading a 90s comic all over again, just without all the cross-hatching (although the awkward sense of anatomy does show up).  I’m done (unless I pre-ordered next month’s issue).

X-Men Legacy #271 – I guess Marvel needed Rogue out of the way of Avengers Vs. X-Men, because now Christos Gage has her on an alien world (or in another dimension), helping a race of characters that look like the Thundercats fight a race of insects for survival.  The characterizations are strong, but this basically feels like Planet Red Hulk, or any of a number of similar stories.  We are clearly just spinning the wheels until this book is cancelled and replaced as part of Marvel Now!

Comics I Would Have Bought if They Weren’t $4:

Avengers Assemble #6

Captain America #16

Mighty Thor #18 (I am not buying Journey Into Mystery now because of this cross-over)

New Avengers #29

Bargain Comics:

Rocketeer Adventures 2 #4 – I don’t really understand why the variant cover of this issue is a cover by Dave Stevens that has been used before, but whatever.  This issue is really pretty decent, with a solid story by the Simonsons that has Cliff showing his worth in Washington, and another good story by John Byrne that has Cliff working to save the World’s Fair from a 9/11-type attack.  These two stories, with some of my favourite creators from the 80s, really took me back.

Star Trek/Legion of Super-Heroes #1-6 – I really miss the Legion of Super-Heroes, having given up the title not long after the New 52 relaunch did nothing to restore it to its former glory, so to satisfy that gap, I thought I’d give this cross-over with the original Star Trek crew a look.  It’s a pretty decent comic – Chris Roberson comes up with a workable reason for the two teams to meet, and then does a great job of integrating their histories (I assume – I’m not that knowledgeable about the original Trek stuff).  The interactions between the two teams are a lot of fun (Spock and Brainiac 5, Kirk and Shadow Lass), and the art by Jeffrey and Philip Moy is very good.  I don’t quite understand why, in the 25th Century, Chekhov would be constantly complaining about Cossacks though – is that a thing he does?

Untold Tales of the Punisher Max #1&2 – Kind of like Before Watchmen, there’s no real reason to return to the Max version of the Punisher, especially after Jason Aaron finished the character off so definitively, but as we all know, the Big Two will return to the trough as many times as they can, and so we have a mini-series of one-shots featuring Frank in his more realistic (ie., more vulnerable) incarnation.  The first issue is by Jason Starr and Roland Boschi.  It’s a pretty standard story about an incurable gambler who gets himself in too deep, and is told to pay up or kill a man.  Starr does a good job with the crime elements, and despite yourself, you start to feel for the character, at least until Frank shows up.  The second issue is more interesting, as writer Jason Latour and artist Connor Willumsen show us what happens with a white trash drug family get Frank trapped in the barn, and end up turning on each other.  Just last week I saw Willumsen’s art for the first time in a story in Outlaw Territory, and commented that he had a bit of a Paul Pope feel to him.  This issue looks more like Kyle Baker in a lot of places – I feel like this guy is an artist to watch.

Wolverine and the X-Men:  Alpha & Omega #3 – Brian Wood has a great handle on Quentin Quire in this issue, although all the scenes featuring Wolverine and Armor feel a little too heavy-handed.

X-Men #30-32 – After being impressed with Brian Wood’s take on the Ultimate X-Men, I figured it was time to check out his new run on the adjectiveless book.  I don’t think of superhero comics when I think of Wood, despite the fact that I know he used to write Generation X, so it’s kind of strange to see him doing a book like this.  He is making good use of Utopia’s ‘security’ team, although I’m hard pressed to understand why two of the Extinction Team (Storm and Colossus) are on it.  What happened to Warpath?  Anyway, the team discovers that someone is using mutant DNA from an earlier era, proving that there were once proto-mutants.  Storm keeps this information to herself, causing a rift in her squad.  I like how Wood uses Storm as a decisive leader – I always think of her as the team’s leader, because it was during the mohawk days that I first started reading the book, and she’s been underutilized for a decade.  I found the team dynamics to be great, except for the conflict between Storm and Colossus, and the fact that despite his bald head, his Juggernaut issues aren’t mentioned.  The art, by David and Alvaro Lopez, is terrific.  I hope this book is sticking around after Marvel Now!; if it is, I may add it to my list.

The Week in Graphic Novels:

Blacksad

Written by Juan Díaz Canales
Art by Juanjo Guarnido

I kind of expected Blacksad, published here in English by the fine people at Dark Horse, to be a pretty standard noirish private eye comic, featuring talking animals acting as people.  That’s basically what this book is, but it is just about the best possible form of that.

There are three stories in this European-sized hardcover, each a self-contained tale although they are told sequentially.  John Blacksad is a private eye who investigates stuff, like so many of his literary, pulp, and comic book forebears.  In the first story, he gets involved when an old girlfriend, an actress, turns up dead.  In the second, he searches for a missing girl, and in the third, he tries to help an old mentor who has been marked for death.  All standard stuff, except for the quality in which the stories are told.

These are some very well-written stories.  Writer Díaz Canales sets these stories in post-war America, and makes very good use of the talking animal element to flesh out his tales.  In the second story, Arctic Nation, the young girl’s disappearance is connected to racial tensions, caused by white supremacist animals who make up the upper class and the police department, and directed towards black animals, especially the Black Claws gang, an analog of the Black Panthers.  One would assume that the easiest way to portray racial difference would be to have different species of animal stand in for races, much like Art Spiegelman did with Maus, but instead, Díaz Canales sticks with colour as the dividing line, and so a white cat is treated as different than a black cat, at least in that city.  It adds some texture to things, as we have a hero with a white muzzle, who has an established aversion to rats.  So this is a society where intolerance is even more ingrained and complex than in ours.

Juanjo Guarnido’s art is wonderful, in that European way, and displays great detail, especially in terms of the time period shown.  I was very impressed with this book, and am happy to know that Dark Horse is publishing more of these.

Book of the Week:

Rick Bass – In My Home There Is No More Sorrow: Ten Days in Rwanda  This is a travel memoir by a writer who went to Rwanda to help his friend run a two-day writers’ workshop for young would-be writers in a country with no infrastructure for publishing.  Bass’s writing is clear and inspiring as he travels to a few of the country’s genocide memorials, teaches the workshop, and travels up into the mountains to watch the gorillas with his family.  This is a surprisingly powerful book that reminds us of the power of the written word, as a way of serving witness, and of reminding that world that things are always more complex than we think.  I found this book very inspiring.

Album of the Week:

Kelan Philip Cohran & Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – The HBE are all children of jazz legend Phil Cohran, and on this excellent album, they pay tribute to him by playing his music.  It’s a very nice album.

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